By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON, Feb 4 (Reuters) - U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke heads to Europe and South Asia on Wednesday in part to gauge how allies and regional players such as India can help to stabilize Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.
The U.S.-led invasion ousted the ruling Taliban seven years ago but the Islamist movement has proved resilient and violent, pushing new U.S. President Barack Obama to plan for more troops for Afghanistan as he seeks to reduce U.S. forces in Iraq.
Holbrooke will visit London and Munich, where he will attend a security conference, and then Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, said U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood.
Holbrooke’s exact travel dates were not disclosed.
"This is an orientation trip. He is not carrying any messages to any of these governments from either the secretary or the president and he is not going there to lecture, he is going there to listen," Wood told reporters, declining more detailed comment.
Obama has named Holbrooke as his special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, handing one of the most arduous U.S. security challenges to the man who brokered the 1995 agreement that ended the Bosnian war.
With Afghanistan in the grip of the worst violence since the Taliban was toppled from power in late 2001, the U.S. military has drawn up plans that would almost double the number of U.S. troops there to around 60,000.
Obama is widely expected to order at least some of those extra troops to be deployed soon.
HOW HARD TO LEAN ON ALLIES?
U.S. officials who asked not to be named said there has been some debate within the government about whether, and how hard, Obama may press allies to send more troops to Afghanistan or to ease restrictions on those already there.
One official suggested Holbrooke may explore more assistance from U.S. allies on all fronts, including military operations and civilian development.
But another official said there was a stream of thinking that it might be more productive for Obama to ask European nations to provide more development assistance.
That official said there was the belief that Obama "does come in with significant political capital and that it may be a mistake to focus on military enhancements ... In other words, it would be squandering that political capital."
"He (Holbrooke) will be testing the limits of what the Europeans are willing to do ... It may be possible that he will find a Europe relieved that they are not being asked for the easing of caveats or for troop commitments," the official added, using NATO’s term for restrictions on troop operations.
Holbrooke’s mandate was carefully drawn to avoid any suggestion that he would mediate between India and Pakistan. The nuclear-armed neighbors have fought two of their three wars since independence in 1947 over the disputed area of Kashmir.
That said, U.S. officials noted they were well aware of India’s deep interest in Afghanistan’s stability and that consulting with New Delhi was vital to Holbrooke’s mission.
"Like the Europeans and others, India has a very strong interest in Afghanistan, expressed by their over $1 billion in assistance, and in the issue of terrorism in Pakistan and the region, so we are going to coordinate with (them) just like we coordinate with other interested parties," said one official. (Editing by John O‘Callaghan)